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Archive for March, 2014

Hoping to capture a shot of an osprey  (Pandion haliaetus) snagging a fish earlier this month, I started firing my camera each time the osprey dove toward the surface of the water with talons extended, but, unlike the bird, I came up empty-handed. The osprey, it turns out, was not fishing for food—it was gathering building materials for its nest. It was impressive nonetheless to watch an osprey fly up into the sky with a pretty large branch in its grasp.

Click on the photos if you want to see a higher resolution view of the images. (I am always amazed by the osprey’s yellow eyes.)

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Despite the rain yesterday, the male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were singing up a storm. It seemed like their entire bodieswould expand as they prepared to call out loudly. I didn’t see any female blackbirds respond to the calls—in fact, I didn’t see any at all.

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It’s springtime and love is in the air. Two tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) seemed intent on getting to know each other better, but kept getting buzzed by a third swallow. A couple of times, one of the swallows, which I suspect was the male, took off and chased away the potential rival.

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Like the dried-up leaves on this branch, winter is tenaciously hanging on, refusing to give way to spring. March is almost over, yet I look out the window and see that the ground is still covered with snow.

Soon the monochromatic tones of winter will be replaced by the pastel colors of spring. Starved for bright colors, my senses rejoice when I am greeted by bright colors, like those of this male Northern Cardinal (Cardinal cardinalis) that I observed this past weekend.

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Soaring high above the earth, this Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) seemed to be relaxing, enjoying a moment of peace before getting back to the pressing  job of rebuilding the nest.

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Can snakes whistle? It sure looks like this Common Ribbonsnake (Thamnophis sauritus) is trying hard to whistle as he purses his lips and seems to be blowing air in this series of shots. Who knew that snakes had lips? This snake has lips that rival those of Mick Jagger and look a bit like they were enhanced with collagen.

When you shoot subjects, how close do you get to them? My general rule for wildlife subjects is to shoot them from a distance (so I can be sure of getting a shot) and then move slowly closer and closer. I was amazed at how close this snake let me approach—this first shot was not cropped very much at all.

I like the head-and-shoulders look of the first image (taking into account the fact that snakes don’t really have shoulders), which draws attention to the snake’s eye. At times, though, I prefer the shots that show more of the snake’s body and my favorite of this group is probably the third shot. I really like the curve of the snake’s body and the tilt of its head. It’s hard to see in this reduced-size image, but two little tips of the snake’s forked tongue are visible in its partially open mouth.

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The world changed for me when I put my macro lens back on my camera, simultaneous becoming smaller and bigger. Instead of looking in the distance for birds, I switched my focus to the world immediately in from of me, searching for tiny objects that I can photograph.

In vain I long for colorful butterflies and dragonflies, but it is too early in the spring for them to appear. As soon as a fly buzzed by me, I was seized with an irresistible urge to capture its image. It’s only a fly (a Green Bottle Fly, I think), but it is symbolic of the joys to come, the time when I will spend endless hours chasing after insects, trying to capture the detailed beauty of their colors and patterns.

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The late afternoon sunlight shining through this crocus from behind illuminated it like a natural stained glass window. I love the beauty of simple things.

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Anyone who had ever played sports has undoubtedly been told, “You have to keep your eye on the ball.” Apparently that is true for dogs too.

I took this shot of Freckles, a friend’s year-old Cocker Spaniel, as she chased a large ball in my back yard yesterday. I love the intensity of her focus, as reflected in her eyes and the expression on her entire face.

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Yesterday afternoon, my dear friend and fellow photographer Cindy Dyer called to alert me that there were some crocuses blooming in her garden. The lighting was wonderful and the dirt in the background provides a simple backdrop for the gorgeous colors of this little spring flower.

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Sometimes you don’t have to travel far to get good nature photos. I noticed this colorful little jumping spider on my car yesterday when I was loading my camera gear, getting ready to go out shooting. spider4_car_blog

It was a fun challenge trying to get shots of the spider as it moved to various parts of the trim surrounding the windshield, many of which were reflective. I wasn’t sure how long the spider would hang around, so I didn’t set up my tripod and I think it would have been pretty awkward to do so.

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I am hoping that nobody snapped pictures of me as I sprawled my body across the hood of the car, trying to find a way to brace my body and get a decent shooting position. My Tamron 180mm macro lens lets me get in close, but it does not have image stabilization.

spider3_car_blogOne of the first things that I noticed when I reviewed my images was that my car is dirty. In this area, they use a lot of salt on the roads when it snows and I suspect that those little white spots are salt residue. I thought about removing them in post-processing, but decided that I like the more urban, gritty feel that they give the images (and besides, it would have been a lot of work to get rid of all of them).

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I am always thrilled when I find a jumping spider. There is something special about all of those eyes that simply fascinates me and I am particularly happy when I manage to get reflections in the eyes.

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Now that it is spring, I have started carrying around my macro lens, which I was able to use to get this really close-up shot today of an Eastern Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) at Huntley Meadows Park, my favorite local spot for nature photography. The snake was curled up in a mossy area and seemed to be a little sluggish. Consequently, he did not slither away when I got down low and moved in close to take this photo.

CORRECTION: Fellow photographer and blogger Walter Sanford, who is much more of an expert in snakes than I am, has identified this snake as a Common Ribbonsnake (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus), not an Eastern Garter snake.

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Do woodpeckers smile?

Earlier this month, I spent some time observing a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at work, high in a tree at my local marshland park. The woodpecker would peck away for a while and then stop for a break.  As the big bird turned his head to one side or to the other, it seemed to me that its face would light up in a self-satisfied smile.

What do you think, is the woodpecker smiling or is it just my imagination, running away with me? (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the temptations to throw in a line from a song.)

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Direct sunlight and harsh shadows in the middle of the day make it challenging to take portraits without somehow diffusing the light. During the spring and summer, I will usually carry a collapsible diffuser that I use when photographing flowers (and occasionally people), but it would have been tough to get into position to use such a diffuser on this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that I spotted on the shore of the Potomac River last Saturday, when I was visiting Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve.

As I observed the heron, I was standing on a raised boardwalk, looking downward at the heron though some bushes. In order to get an unobstructed shot, I zoomed in, focusing primarily on the head and neck. The heron moved its head about a lot as it searched the shallow waters and looked through the debris at the shore’s edge, moving in out of the shadows.

I took a lot of photos of the heron and this is one of my favorites. I like the way that I was able to capture some of the details of the plumage and the sinuous curve of the heron’s neck. I would love to be able to capture a similar image early in the day or late in the day, but, as every wildlife photographer knows, you can never tell when you will have another opportunity to photograph a subject again.

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These images are disturbing, especially the first one. They show the harsh reality of the struggle for survival for wild creatures, even in the relatively comfortable confines of a suburban marshland park.

For the second time this winter, I stumbled upon a dead deer in a remote area of my the marsh when I take many of my wildlife photos. (I documented the earlier sighting in a posting that I titled “The Buck Was Stopped Here.”) This time, the skeleton was relatively intact and I was surprised to see that it was another buck. I am still baffled about the cause of his death. Predators? Starvation?

As a photographer and as a human, I struggled in deciding how to present this subject in photographs. I knew that I was not going to remove the body far from where I found it, so I had to settle for a relatively cluttered backdrop. Was it better to show the whole body, as I did in the third photo and keep death at a distance? Should I photograph it to look like the deer had fallen asleep and died peacefully, as the second shot suggests, the way we treat death at a funeral home?

I decided that my best shot was the one in which I forced the viewer essentially to look death in the face directly, by focusing directly on the deer’s now empty eye socket. Death is a reality that can’t be avoided. The photo is a bit macabre, I know, but it speaks to me of life and of death, of the passing of one of God’s creatures.

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As I was observing the osprey couple on the Potomac River this past weekend, I spotted an unusual-looking duck of a species that I had never seen before. One of my fellow photographers said that he was pretty sure that it was a Canvasback duck (Aythya valisineria) and I couldn’t disagree, having no idea what a Canvasback duck looked like.

The duck was a pretty good distance away and I was looking through my telephoto lens when it decided to take off from the water. I don’t think that the duck was aware of our presence, for it initially flew toward us and parallel to the shore before veering off into the center of the river. I was able to track the duck pretty well and got some in-flight shots, including my two favorites that I am posting.

I am not one hundred percent sure of the identification and would welcome a confirmation or correction, as appropriate, from someone with more experience in identifying bird species.

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I was a little surprised to see some Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) on Saturday when I visited Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, a freshwater tidal wetlands on the Potomac River. I thought it was a bit early for these little aerial acrobats to be here, given the fact that there are not yet many insects for them to catch, but they were flying about and checking out a nesting box.

Sometimes I get cool shots of birds in flight by accident, like this shot of a Tree Sparrow, which took off as I was photographing it. The angle of view is one that I have never before captured in any image.

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Two of the swallows seemed to spend a lot of time together and I suspect that they are a breeding pair, though they were periodically buzzed by other tree swallows, which could be other potential suitors for the female. One of the swallows eventually entered the box and I suspect that the swallows are constructing a nest in it, though I didn’t see any of them actually carrying in construction material.swallow_entrance_blogIt’s a good sign for me that spring is almost here when I see birds reappearing (even as I shovel away eight or so inches of snow that have fallen in the last 24 hours).

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A breeding pair of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) has returned to a nesting site only a few miles from where I live and I was thrilled to get some shots of the ospreys yesterday, on a bright sunny day.

The nest, which has been used for quite a number of years, is built on a wooden piling near the Belle Haven Marina south of Old Town Alexandria on the Potomac River. The piling is tilted quite a bit, apparently because of the pressure of the ice that accumulated when the cold temperatures this winter caused the river to freeze, but the birds seem undeterred and were busily adding sticks to the nest yesterday. It looks like the ospreys may be compensating for the angle by building the nest higher on one side than the other, though it is really hard to tell at the moment.

I took lots of shots yesterday that I need to review, but I thought I would post this one as a sneak preview and suspect that I will have enough shots for another few postings. The ospreys flew by a few times (most often the male) and I was able to get photos of them in flight andworking on the nest.  I remember hearing that there were ospreys on the Potomac River, but somehow never made the trip last year during breeding season. This year, I will try to make more frequent trips to check on the couple’s progress.

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Earlier this month, when the ponds were almost completely frozen over at my local marsh, I watched as some Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) zoomed across the ice at a very low altitude. It looked like they were racing each other. In the background you can see some potential spectators, but they didn’t seem to want to get caught up in a wild goose chase.

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In this transitional time of the year, mornings are often frosty and ice forms in some areas of the marsh in beautiful patterns that look like crystal flowers. Spring is not far off and soon these ice flowers will be replaced by the real thing.

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Do you have a favorite spot that serves as a refuge, a place to which you can retreat and just sit and absorb the natural beauty that surrounds you? This winter I found such a place at a beaver pond in one of the remote corners of my local marshland park, a location reachable only by following a thorny, informal trail that was often muddy and/or icy.

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Often I would sit on one of the logs that surrounded one end of the beaver pond for extended periods of time and listen and observe. On occasion I was lucky and managed to get shots of an otter and a red fox from this spot, but mostly I would try to relax and clear my mind and reflect on life (I never managed to see any beavers here).

This spot has really beautiful light and sometimes I would marvel at the beautiful reflections that the trees across the pond would cast onto the water. I tried several times to capture those wonderful reflections with my camera, mostly without success. Last week, though, I took some photos that I like and here are a couple of them. They have an abstract quality that I find to be really appealing.

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The temperatures this past weekend soared past 60 degrees (16 degrees C), bringing the turtles up from the mud on the bottom of the ponds at my local marsh. Most of the turtles crowded together on the log in the first shot appear to be Eastern Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta picta), but I think I detect at least one Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).

Not all of turtles, however, wanted to bask in the sun in a communal environment. The second image shows a turtle that managed to find its own log and was enjoying a few moments of contemplative solitude.

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Usually I spot male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched on the top of the cattails stalks, loudly calling out, but this one decided to perch himself sidewards. It looked a little awkward, but he seemed to manage well enough as he struck a pose for me.

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Every time that I see the outlandishly long bill and bright colors of a male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), I can’t help but think that this is a cartoon duck, created by Walt Disney for a Technicolor movie. Of course, these ducks are real and the bills serve a useful function in helping them to strain the water for food.

The male shoveler is easier to spot, because of its more distinctive coloration, but I was happy to be able to get some shots of a female too as this couple moved in and out of the reeds in one of the ponds at my local marsh. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Northern Shoveler pairs are monogamous and remain together longer than pairs of other dabbling duck species.

One of the interesting things that I noted is that the feathers on the male’s head are not the solid green that I am used to seeing. They seem mottled and I wonder if this is some kind of transitional plumage as breeding season approaches.

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Judging from the distance between them and the awkwardness of their poses, these Northern Pintail ducks (Anas acuta) this morning at my local marsh looked like they were on a first date, getting to know each other.

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This past weekend it seemed like we had been invaded by a large flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius), busily foraging in the trees and in the grass, and these words kept echoing in my mind:

“A robin feathering his nest
Has very little time to rest
While gathering his bits of twine and twig
Though quite intent in his pursuit
He has a merry tune to toot
He knows a song will move the job along.”

Folks of my generation will immediately recognize some of the lyrics of the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” from the movie Mary Poppins. In case you don’t recall the song or have never heard it, here’s a link to a clip on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8VHc49ZdP4).

The song and the movie may be seem unrealistically squeaky clean by today’s standards, but I can never get enough of its cheery optimism. It’s one of my favorite things, like silver white winters that melt into spring.

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I never expected to encounter a dragonfly when I went walking in the snow in my neighborhood yesterday.

My eyes were scanning the trees for birds,  when right it front of me I detected the unmistakable shape of a dragonfly, a giant green dragonfly perched on a tree. I approached it quietly and was able to get this shot, my first shot of a dragonfly in a long time.

With snow still covering the ground and the temperatures below freezing, it’s hard to imagine that the real dragonflies will be appearing in a few short months.

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What it would be like to fly like a bird? When I look at this photo I took recently of a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) in flight, I feel almost like I am flying in formation with a gaggle of geese and have glanced over to look at one of my flying companions. The sad reality, of course, was that my feet were firmly planted on the ground and this goose flew by me at a relatively low altitude.

I’d still like to fly—perhaps in my dreams I can take flight.

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The soundtrack to my recent visits to the marsh has been the constant cacophony of a chorus of countless cawing crows.  The crows seem to be everywhere, swooping in large groups from one grove of trees to another.

I have tried numerous times to get some shots of these American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) without much success, but recently I took an image that I like. The day was cloudy and heavily overcast when photographed this crow in flight. When I started working on the image the sky turned almost white. Normally, I would not have been happy with that result, but somehow this stark background works for me for this crow.

I thought about going completely black-and-white for this image, but I like the way that some of the feathers appear to be a lighter shade of brown. Is the crow molting, perhaps?

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Hiking through a remote area of my local marshland park yesterday, I came upon the skull of a dead deer with some impressive-looking antlers. I don’t know much about deer, but the antlers are enough to tell me that it was a buck and, if I understand the counting system right, it was a six-point buck  (three on each side). Initially I saw only the skull, but when I investigated the marsh grass in the surrounding area, I saw some of the larger bones of the deer.

The White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the park don’t have many natural predators, so I can’t help but wonder what caused this buck’s demise. There are coyotes in the park, so I guess that is a possibility. At certain times of the year, archers also shoot deer and I have been told that police sharpshooters sometimes hunt deer at night, but my understanding is that they try to recover the bodies and turn the meat over to homeless shelters. Whatever the case, the animals and birds of the park had picked the bones clean.

I took these shots primarily to record my find, not to make any kind of artistic statement. I used a couple of elements in the area where I found the skull to prop it up so that I could photograph some of the details of this once beautiful animal.

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At this time of the year especially, I can usually depend on seeing ducks, geese, and sparrows at my local marsh—other birds may or may not be present, but these three species are my constant companions. The ducks and the geese are often loud and occasionally obnoxious, but when the sparrows sing, it’s generally a more melodious song. The ducks and geese will often fly away when I approach, but the sparrows will just take a hop or two and continue to forage for food.

I take lots of photos of sparrows. They are usually within range and have a surprising amount of personality. Yesterday, on a cold and windy day, I captured this image of what I think is a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). The light was pretty good and the sparrow cooperated by lifting its head without turning, resulting in a pleasant little portrait of this pretty little bird.

CORRECTION: A number of more experience bird watchers have noted that this is a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), not a Song Sparrow. Sorry for any confusion—this is not the first time I have misidentified a species, and certainly not the last.

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